he politics of pandemic and protest may have been brutal and divisive in Portland, but few city agencies are better placed to tamp down those hot tempers than firefighters. After all, they rescue kittens from trees, race into burning buildings, and give stickers to kids, all while wearing snappy uniforms. What’s not to love?
So that made it extra-surprising when, last February, the Portland Fire Bureau announced that it was putting an indefinite pause on a $147 million ask to voters that would have repaired buildings neglected for decades.
“I can tell you in the history of Portland Fire and Rescue, we’ve never seen poll numbers so bad,” Portland City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who oversees the department, said at the time.
The poor numbers were at odds with recent history. “In the last 10 years or so, there really have only been two local funding measures that haven’t passed in the Portland area,” says John Horvick, a senior vice president at DHM Research, the firm that conducted the polling on behalf of Portland Fire and Rescue.
Since 2010, Portland voters have agreed to raise taxes and borrow billions for homelessness, affordable housing, preschool, arts, school construction, global warming, teachers, parks, the historical society, and more. The sole failures: a 2011 school bond, repackaged and passed the next year, and a 2020 Metro transportation measure to fund traffic and transit priorities across Multnomah, Clackamas, and Washington Counties that managed to be equally unacceptable to voters on the right (expanded light rail? no, thank you!) and the left (expanded freeways? no, thank you!).
“It’s a common quip that Multnomah County voters have never seen a tax measure they don’t like—but the Metro transportation bond is a warning sign,” says Paul Manson, who teaches political science at Reed College. In his view, Metro didn’t appreciate that the left and the right would both find points to oppose.
For bureaucrats looking to fund future programs—and the taxpayers who would foot the bill—the big question is this: does historic voter discontent spell the end of Portland’s easy-spending ways?
Perhaps not. Elected officials—and citizens at large—pursue ballot measures most likely to pass, so it seems unlikely they’d abandon Oregon’s century-plus tradition of local initiatives. The main question to ask: “Is it going to fund what voters’ highest priorities are? And if it’s not, you have to really think about how they are going to respond,” says Horvick.
His firm’s polling finds Portland’s top issues right now are homelessness, crime, and housing affordability. “Voters are looking for confidence in local government. Do they feel that the people who are going to get this money are going to use it effectively?” Horvick adds.
From those selling such measures, truthful storytelling matters, says
Jeremy Wright. He’s owner of Wright Public Affairs, a consulting firm that worked on Portland Public Schools’ most recent measures and on dozens of local initiatives statewide. One of Wright’s trials by fire was Portland Public Schools’ massive $790 million 2017 school construction bond, the biggest in state history at the time. The district was in crisis after the discovery of widespread lead in drinking fountains, the sudden departure of the then-superintendent, and an overall loss of public confidence.
But the campaign—“I’m voting yes to get the lead out”—leaned into these public problems. Wright’s takeaway is that public agencies need to tell their own stories, instead of relying solely on winnowed-down local media.
One compelling story told to Portland in recent years is the city’s clean energy community benefits fund, passed in 2018. The idea has an obvious progressive appeal: tax mega-corporations and use the money to help disadvantaged groups adapt to a hotter planet. But the simple story that first appealed to voters has gotten more complicated.
Revenues have soared past expectation while grant-making has lagged. Through July 1, the fund brought in $234 million but total spending was less than $28 million, according to current budget estimates. Worse, plans to spend millions on air conditioners were hastily rerouted after the Oregonian reported that the company the city planned to partner with was run by a woman with a history of fraud. (She’s now suing the program, arguing her firm should have gotten the work anyway.)
A city audit found that the fund had “not adopted a methodology to measure, track, and report performance—as required by the legislation.” Complicating matters further, the newspaper later reported the audit was delayed by six months and rewritten after fund staff complained it was “blatantly racist.” The draft audit’s recommendation to freeze grants until oversight was in place was removed, critical language was softened, and the head of Portland’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, which manages the fund, announced her departure not long after.
Magan Reed, a fund spokesperson, said that setting up a complex, first-in-the nation program shouldn’t be rushed. “There’s not any point in spending that money if it’s not being done correctly,” she said. In July, city council members approved $111 million worth of projects, with grants going to nonprofits including the Community Cycling Center and Friends of Trees.
Hoarding hundreds of millions comes with its own problems. “Money doesn’t sit around in governments and not attract attention ... someone’s going to want to spend it,” says Manson.
That’s what happened with Metro’s homeless services bond, approved in 2020. People for Portland, a well-financed new group backed by business and real estate interests that’s crusaded for a crackdown on public camping, proposed a ballot measure to reprogram money toward a more shelter-heavy approach to the homeless, although it was barred from the ballot on a technicality.
Metro has also been criticized as slow to use a $475 million bond measure to fund “clean water, natural areas, access to parks and nature” that passed with 66.8 percent of the vote in 2019. Total spending amounted to less than $25 million through May, according to communications director Neil Simon.
Meanwhile, those who are paying the new taxes have taken note with their own back-of-the-envelope math. Multnomah County’s Preschool for All program—expected to enroll 675 students this school year—taxes higher earners most heavily.
Ethan Chen, a digital marketer and entrepreneur, moved to downtown Portland from the Bay Area in 2019. After the pandemic struck, his wife started feeling unsafe downtown after dark. Two new taxes in 2020 on higher incomes also pinched. Chen stressed he was “happy to pay taxes if they result in something, just feel like the city’s solution to problems is trying to throw money at it, and it doesn’t really solve anything.”
To relocate, Chen and his wife compared Beaverton and Vancouver, but Washington state’s lack of income tax made the choice simpler. The savings in income tax from moving out of Oregon “pays for almost all of our mortgage every month. I moved and I got a free house,” he says.